Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Douglas Barbour

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Douglas Barbour

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Conor Ling:

Hello there, thank you for taking the time to answer my pesky little questions. I look forward to reading your answers.

I understand that you are a professor at the University of Alberta. Does your teaching there continue to inspire you poetry, or do you see yourself looking elsewhere for inspiration in the near or distant future?

Douglas Barbour:

I’m going to answer this one first, because I’m sitting in Santiago Chile on a trip to Chile for the first time & was able to do this because I’m a professor emeritus; ie, I no longer teach at the University of Alberta. However, since I taught Canadian Literature, modern poetry & creative writing, I think my teaching & what I learned from continually reading for courses, as well as watching the creative writing students find interesting ways of writing for themselves — all that certainly helped to inspire me.

On the other hand, one of my greatest inspirations has been & is reading other poets’ work. I returned to Phyllis Webb always; there are many other contemporary & modern poets who have served as mentors to me, & I continue to discover new work that also inspires me to think of new ways of letting a poem say something. I still believe Robert Creeley’s fine statement: I write to find out what it is I am given to say (I think that’s how he put it, emphasis on given). At any rate, I have always told students that language generates language, & to write you have to read — a lot.


In your book Breath Takes, you go through all sorts of different forms and variations upon breath. My favorites were whenever I felt a sense of rhythm. For me, rhythm is essential to everything we do in life and how we do those things that we do. Which was your favorite to write and why?


Okay, I confess: rhythm is very important to me, it’s one of the things I look for in poetry, & something I hope to achieve in my own writing. So the line is central to my writing, even when some of the forms I choose make it a bit of a struggle to get it right.

As to how I write, I don't really know. Usually, now, if I can get a line, then I can follow where it leads. An image, a tune, something that happens, all these can spark a possible line — of thought, of music in language, etc.

I’m also writing a long poem, Continuations, a series of section, in collaboration with the fine USAmerican poet, Sheila E Murphy, where we think that each other’s stanza sets off the linguistic response in the other writer as we write back & forth, but nevertheless things that are happening around each of us, & in the world, do get into the poems. She has a great sense of rhythm in her poetry, which sure makes it easy for me to respond.


Is there any particular reason why you chose to write a breath ghazal (still working on finding the title) specifically for Chet Baker? There are millions of other jazz artists out there. As a trumpet player, I love Miles Davis or Maynard Ferguson. Is there any particular attachment to Chet Baker that led to his choosing?


I’m a huge Miles Davis fan, but also like Baker’s work, & many others. This BG was for Baker because he played at an Edmonton Jazz festival some years ago (obviously), in a small restaurant venue, in a trio with guitar & bass, & it was near the end of his life. He played ballads & blues, very understated, minimalist, & I wrote this BG inn response to hearing him on that particular evening. Many of the BGs came about as such responses — the form was a given, but many were occasional poems. I should add that I don't have any of my books with me here, so I really am working on memory alone & can't quote a line & speak to it. I do have a series of poems on jazz, & one of them works with that great Miles Davis Quintet.


Are there any canonical poets, traditional forms or periods in history that you draw inspiration from? I myself like William Blake, because of his lack of recognition during his life and his practical reverence nowadays.


Blake is always interesting, but I was a late starter in poetry & had not till I got to university really read any, finding those old poems boring (I no longer feel that way about them). I lucked into a course on Modernism taught by Louis Dudek, a major modernist Canadian poet of the mid-20th century. There I read The Wasteland & some of Pound’s Cantos. A few years later, I was in Halifax when The New American Poetry came out & that was it. So I guess my "canonical" poet, at least at the beginning, is Pound (I agree with Hugh Kenner about The Pound Era, & Marjorie Perloff about Pound having an essential formal influence on later writing — at least on the writing in the US & Canada [& even Great Britain, Australia, & New Zealand], or at least on the writing that most influenced me). Then there are the Canadian poets who influenced me, often my contemporaries like bpNichol. My generation was perhaps the first to be part of a continuing Canadian tradition, rather than a tradition that was continually fragmented by failure of publishing & teaching & general outreach.


After having read some of your work, I found it unlike any other poetry I’ve had the opportunity to read. I found it interesting how you incorporated the strict forms and structures of ghazal verse into a topic with such freedom and versatility as breath. Is there any particular reason why you combined two such contrasting ideas?


There’s now at least one PhD thesis, perhaps a book by now, on the way Canadian poets found freedom in "Englishing" the ghazal. It’s a strict rhyming couplet form in Persian, but what John Thompson called its refusal to follow logic in its structure, it offered a kind of freedom from lyric rhetoric to poets like him & Phyllis Webb & others. We do tend to keep the couplet structure but without the need to end-rhyme, which English is not the best language for. Because of my interest in Sound Poetry (which Ms rawlings can certainly tell you about), I wanted to put something into each poem that slowed the reader down & perhaps undercut the usual lyric response, & the actual sound of the act of breathing seemed like a good way to do that. And then, over a number of years, certain poems just told me that they were going to be BGs, & so I found myself writing them that way.


I read in a biography of you that you are a fan of jazz music. I noticed that there was a similarity with your ghazal poetry to jazz. Music has strict rules like a ghazal, but jazz works by exploring and occasionally bending those rules to produce a sound unlike any other form of music. Are there any elements of the jazz you listen to that overlap into your poetry?


I am a fan of jazz, as I've said above, but also of rock, of roots music, of classical, & I listen to them all (pretty well all the time). I’d like to think that, like Robert Creeley (whose comment on how he wrote I mentioned above), I write in a somewhat improvisational manner. I often listen to jazz when I write, & certainly listen to the specific records (that they once were; now CDs) that I write from/about in my series of jazz poems. Again, jazz is as much about rhythm as it is about melody, & I care a lot about rhythm in my writing. That’s the major overlap I guess.

Douglas Barbour, poet, critic, and Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Alberta, has published many books of criticism and poetry, including Fragmenting Body etc. (NeWest Press/SALT 2000), Lyric/Anti-lyric: essays on contemporary poetry (NeWest Press 2001), Breath Takes (Wolsak & Wynn 2002), A Flame on the Spanish Stairs (greenboathouse books 2003), Continuations, with Sheila E. Murphy (University of Alberta Press 2006), and most recently, Wednesdays’ (above/ground press 2008). He has read his poetry and lectured in many places around the world, & also performed with Stephen Scobie in the sound poetry duo, Re: Sounding. He was inaugurated into the City of Edmonton Cultural Hall of Fame in 2003.

Conor was into this world in the rain to be a son of both English and Irish descent. From Scotland he moved to Bangladesh, back to Scotland and finally to Toronto, Canada. Living in a house of extreme drive and ambition, he knows the importance of standing out. He has ambitions to be an actor and lives to tell the tale. Despite his last name, he frequently insists that no, he is not Asian.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page